The election of Donald Trump as President-Elect last month was a surprise to most, including the candidate himself. ‘Monday nite quarterbacking’ was widespread throughout the political spectrum. What happened?? How did this happen? Of course, numerous factors influenced both democratic and republican voters but one major factor was either overlooked and/or dismissed. The pundits and pollsters got it wrong. POPULISM was real and widespread.
Succinctly and historically Populism can be described as the working class seeking economic justice. However, this is definitely not the whole story! Today’s populism is defined primarily in terms of nationalism, sexism, bigotry and anti-intellectualism. It is not limited to the United States. It exists in Central and South America in the peoples’ attempts to overthrow dictators, in Europe its most recent manifestation is Brexit – England’s withdrawal from the European Union – and today, the U.S. election has left the world and the U.S. with escalating voices of resistance, stunned silence or joyful reactions. I believe the conversations are just beginning or, perhaps, better identified as debates and/or dialogues!
Many descriptions of populism exist depending on the era and cultures of a particular people. I have chosen the following as a working identification and will apply it to the United States:
Populism is the exacerbated expression of the people’s
place within democratic institutions, particularly at
times when the political systems do not function
properly,when tensions become too acute, when the
channels for expressing discontent work badly, or
when the political elites are perceived as breaking
faith with those they represent.
(Meny and Surel. Democracies and Populist Challenge)
In U.S. history the seeds of populism were sown in 1891 in Cincinnati, Ohio due to a rebellion of farmers and union persons organizing for agrarian and union reform as they challenged the prevailing attitudes of the political elite. A year later a populist party was formed but short lived. However, populism has been a thread throughout our history both through populism’s movements(Tea Party and Occupy Movement) and their recognized leaders e.g. Huey Long, George Wallace, Father Coughlin, Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader and currently Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Obviously, populism can be politically right or left. Again, at its core, the movement reflects the awareness and anger of people who feel marginalized and disenfranchised with the primary target being the wealthy elite and the elected representatives in government. They resist and struggle to reclaim their sovereignty from the elite. The goal is not to overthrow capitalism rather to claim their power through elections and legislative power.
“Trump’s triumph was the Rust Belt’s revenge, an expression of the same economic and racial unease that gave these same states to Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. The supposed job stealers in those days were in Japan, now they are in China and Mexico. . . His genius: to convince people by the millions whose lives are utterly unlike his that he alone could be trusted with their grudges, their passions, and their resentments. . . Trump made himself the messenger for a faction of Americans that has cried out at irregular intervals down through our history – Suspicious of governing elites, opposed to open immigration, resistant to free trade. . . ” (TIME 11/21/16)
Not to be overlooked is the huge impact of the Great Recession in 2008! Now these concerns along with deep-seated racism of the right and alt right have given white nationalists a voice within current populism. According to Paul Krugman, “Democrats have to figure out why the white working class just voted overwhelmingly against its own economic interests, not pretend that a bit more populism would solve the problem.”
To conclude: I have offered an overview of what, in hindsight, many believe to be the foundation of Donald Trump’s successful election. Much more can be said. Populism and Trump’s avowed values, which often fluctuated based on what issue he was addressing and which audience stood before him, brought him to the most powerful political position in the world. So, what do you think?
Is Populism a threat or a challenge for the democratic system?
For those interested, I suggest
The Populist Explosion by John B. Judis. 2016
The Arrogant Capital by Kevin Phillips. 1994